(This is based on John Gerstner’s Primer on Biblical Inerrancy from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.)
Sola ScripturaWhy was there a Reformation?
It was not because of the selling of indulgences. Certainly that sorry practice contributed, but the Catholic Church no longer sells indulgences. If commercialization of indulgences was the primary cause of the reformation, then it would be high time for Protestants to reunite with the Catholic Church.
There were many secondary causes of the Reformation. The selling of indulgences, in the final analysis, may not have even been one of the more important. The scandal involving indulgences pointed to corruption, which can be (and was) dealt with internally. The real issue was one of serious doctrinal error, which is the only justification for a schism.
The primary, or formal cause of the Protestant Reformation, was Sola Scriptura—Scripture Alone. The reformers proclaimed it; the Catholic Church refuted it. Not much has changed in this regard in the past 500 years.
What Is Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)?When the Church called for Luther to recant at Worms (1521), he famously dug in his heels and said he would not unless he "was convinced by sacred scripture."
Sola Scriptura means all things necessary and concerning faith and life are taught in the bible, and are taught in a way that the ordinary believer can understand.
The Westminster Confession puts it this way:
"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men."The Roman Catholic view is that scripture owes its authority to the authority of the church, because it was the church that created the canon. Vatican II declared:
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.Clearly Rome also differed historically with its view of the access of scripture to the flock. In 1559, Pope Pius IV said:
Since experience teaches that, if the reading of the Holy Bible in the vernacular is permitted generally without discrimination, more damage than advantage will result because of the boldness of men, the judgment of bishops and inquisitors is to serve as guide in this regard. Bishops and inquisitors may, in accord with the counsel of the local priest and confessor, allow Catholic translations of the Bible to be read by those of whom they realize that such reading will not lead to the detriment but to the increase of faith and piety. The permission is to be given in writing. Whoever reads or has such a translation in his possession without this permission cannot be absolved from his sins until he has turned in these Bibles ...Calvin wrote, regarding the canon receiving its authority from the church:
Nothing therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent. As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste. (Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.2)
Scriptural SupportThere is, of course, scriptural support for Sola Scriptura, including this well-known passage from 2 Timothy:
15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17)Verse 15 tells us that scripture is what we need to be “wise for salvation”. Verse 16 tells us that Scripture is inspired (which implies inerrant). Verse 17 tells us that it renders us thoroughly (not partially) equipped.
In Jude it is written:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)The saints do not have to wait for further revelation. All that we need has been entrusted once and for all.
Moses wrote down the law, and then instructed that it be read to the people. In Deuteronomy we read:
9 So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Then Moses commanded them: "At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. (Deut 31:9-12)Here is the lesson from theses passages:
he said to them, "Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. 47 They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess." (Deut 32, 46-47)
- The words Moses spoke were written.
- The people can and must listen (or read) and learn.
- In these words, there is life.
Not everything is in the BibleSola Scriptura does not mean that everything is in the Bible. The solution to your calculus homework is not in the Bible. Less trivially, not everything about God is in the Bible:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:25)This verse is sometimes used to argue against Sola Scriptura. It is useless in that regard. I would love to know what Jesus did that was not recorded, but I don’t need to know it. And if I did need to know it, all would be lost; for no council, synod, or pope will ever be able to tell me what these unrevealed acts were.
Sola Scriptura in the Early Church.Who was the first New Testament era proponent of Sola Scriptura? It was Jesus Himself.
3The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: " 'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" 7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." 10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" (Matt. 4:3-10, NIV)When refuting Satan, Jesus didn’t appeal to tradition, or to the Pharisees, or even His own deity and infallible reason. Each and every time He quoted scripture. 3 Even when Satan also used scripture (verse 6), Christ trumped him with more relevant scripture.
Was Sola Scriptura Invented by the Reformers?Catholic apologists like to claim that Sola Scriptura was unheard of prior to the Reformation. It is a weak criticism on several fronts, not the least of which being that it is simply not true. However, even if it were true it would at most cast suspicion on the doctrine in the form of a “newness stigma”. In other words, it would simply be the argument that any doctrine that took 15 centuries to be discovered should be viewed critically. Fair enough, although that in and of itself would by no means disprove Sola Scriptura.
Anyway, it’s moot. For there is ample evidence that the doctrine existed in the early church.
Augustine (On Christian Doctrine) wrote:
In those teachings which are clearly based on scripture are found all that concerns faith and the conduct of life.For another example, we turn to Cyril of Jerusalem, a teacher in the early church, who wrote in the 4th century: (lecture 4-17)
"Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures."A rather nice encapsulation of Sola Scriptura.
Catholic apologists tell us that we cannot use Cyril’s writing as early evidence of Sola Scriptura because Cyril also wrote extensively on sacred tradition and other "high Catholic" doctrines. In other words, because he is not totally consistent with the reformers, his clear exposition of Sola Scriptura is irrelevant. This is disingenuous—because I can just as easily turn it around and state that his writing on Sola Scriptura nullifies his alleged support of sacred tradition.
Besides, what does it matter what he wrote elsewhere? If Luther had written tomes on sacred tradition prior to his conversion, we would still say Luther supported Sola Scriptura.
The point is not whether Cyril was an early Lutheran but whether the doctrine of Sola Scriptura existed in the early church, regardless of the degree of self-consistency in Cyil’s theology. His writing clearly demonstrates that it did. It is but one piece of evidence contradicting the absurd claim that Sola Scriptura wasn't even "invented" until the 16th century.
I would like to think that if I were still a Catholic (I once was, but didn't consider these things at that time) and rejected Sola Scriptura, I would nevertheless have the instincts to doubt the claim that it was unheard of prior to the Reformation. After all, right or wrong, it is a singularly simple doctrine. The possibility that for fifteen centuries nobody came up with the simple and straightforward notion that Scripture is sufficient is just not believable.. It would be much easier to believe that a complex doctrine such as the Trinity took a long time to develop.